“A few weeks after high school graduation, I moved from home in West Austin to Newman Hall, a Catholic dorm, at the corner of 21st and Guadalupe (then at the southwest corner of campus) to attend summer school. Nuns who were going to summer school were living on the third floor of Newman Hall. People like me who were not nuns (I wasn’t even Catholic) were living on the second floor.
On August 1, 1966, someone came into the dining room on the first floor of the dorm where a bunch of us were eating lunch and said there was someone shooting from the top of the Tower. I went outside with a number of nuns to look. We were standing on Guadalupe looking up at the Tower, seeing the puffs of smoke from the observation deck, and hearing the gunfire. I was wearing a bright red dress I had made. There were different religious orders represented among the nuns with whom I was standing. Because they were all wearing long habits, though, it was obvious from a distance that they were nuns.
We had no idea that Charles Whitman’s gunshots could reach us as we stood there on Guadalupe until a policeman drove up and told us to get back inside, that we could easily be shot. (As I recall, Whitman’s bullets hit as far away as 19th Street, now Martin Luther King Boulevard, two blocks beyond where we were standing.) The policeman also instructed that we stay far away from the windows of the dorm when we got inside.
We hurried inside and listened to radios for coverage and heard the shots as they rang out. (Subsequently, the dorm underwent major renovations. At the time, however, the dorm’s hallways led to big windows at the front and back, with the front windows facing out onto Guadalupe. As the halls were not air conditioned at the time, it was easy to hear the shots.)
It was scary, eerie, and totally unreal.
After what seemed an eternity, it was finally announced on the radio that the shooter had been killed. I went to the big windows that looked out from the dorm hallway onto Guadalupe. I was horrified to see a mob of people flooding onto campus up the concrete steps at the corner of 21st and Guadalupe. I had no idea from whence they came or where they were trying to go. Were they going to see bodies, see the carnage? I will never know.
Afterwards, I heard on the radio that Charles Whitman, the shooter, was Catholic. I already realized that I was lucky I had not been shot and was grateful for the instruction from the passing policeman. It occurred to me, though, that, if Whitman had had it in for anyone associated with the Catholic Church, the nuns and I could easily have been specially targeted and wounded or killed. I felt doubly lucky. I never wore the red dress after that that I didn’t think about that day.
I remember hearing newsman Paul Bolton’s reaction to the reading of grandson Paul Sonntag’s name on the list of victims, and the grief washed over me as I thought about the effect of the murder of a grandson on a grandfather. (It haunts me to this day.) I was not in Paul or Claudia’s circle of close friends. I knew Claudia less well than I knew Paul. I had gone to junior and senior high with him. He was a handsome, smart, nice guy with a great sense of humor. He would have gone far if he had not had his life taken away from him as one of Whitman’s random victims. I was stunned and shocked that he and Claudia were dead in an instant. I really could not process it.
At the time of the Tower massacre, my brother, Warren, who was five years older than I, was working for an ambulance company following a stint in the Marines. Unbeknownst to me or my mother and stepfather until later, he was sent out to pick up the wounded while Whitman was shooting. (Warren’s boss, Morris Holman, was one of those shot that day.) As it was, Warren employed the defensive skills he had learned in the Marines. He had been taught, for instance, not to run straight, but to zigzag so that someone wishing to shoot him would have a harder time aiming and hitting him. He zigzagged while running to get to victims and load them into the ambulance.
There were others who were directly involved that day that I didn’t learn about until I listened to “Out of the Blue” today.
John Fox and James Love, for instance, who stepped out into harm’s way to help Claire Wilson, were classmates of mine at Austin High. I have fond memories of both of them from my high school days. Now, I have deep respect for them and what they did to save Claire Wilson.
What strikes me looking back 50 years is how we went back to our “normal” lives after a few weeks. Every now and then, as I crossed the mall in front of the Tower, I would think of that day — of Paul and Claudia, of Morris Holman and my brother, of the many people who were literally in the crosshairs, their families, their friends. Mostly though, we just went back to living our lives – going to class, working, doing student things. I don’t know if we simply “stuffed it” or couldn’t really take it in as it seemed so unreal. I do know that I and all of the people I knew viewed it as an aberration, not the kind of thing we would experience or see again.
Unfortunately, we were so very wrong. . . .”